Networkwide Exchange on Securing Land Rights for People and the Planet
On 27 April 2021, ESCR-Net co-hosted an online discussion on land rights. Over 50 members from across Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, Europe and North America, convened virtually to learn from each other’s experiences and strengthen shared analysis and common narratives on land, historical injustices and the structural causes of human rights and environmental violations related to land. The Networkwide Project on Environment & ESCR, Women & ESCR Working Group and the Economic Policy Working Group led on coordinating the virtual event.
This event aimed to strengthen ongoing collective work on land. More than 50 percent of ESCR-Net members work on land rights. Building on the strong analysis and insights which emerged from this virtual gathering, ESCR-Net members reaffirmed the importance of continuing to advance collective advocacy, action, and litigation to secure land rights for people and the planet.
The discussion contained four intersecting strands of exchange:
Confronting Corporate Power: Challenging the Financialization of Land - the Struggle for Land Rights;
Climate Justice, Biodiversity Protection, and the Land Rights of Indigenous Peoples and local communities;
Protecting our land and environmental rights defenders; and
Fighting for systemic change.
During this event, several members made formal interventions including Debbie Stothart, (ALTSEAN-Burma), Elga Betty Angulo Gutierrez (Confederación Campesina del Perú), Faith Alubbe (Kenya Land Alliance), Gam A. Shimray, (Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact), Xoán Carlos Sánchez Couto (Justiça nos Trilhos), Adam Barnes (Kairos: The Center for Religions, Rights & Social Justice),and S’bu Zikode (Abahlali baseMjondolo). Sofia Monsalve (FIAN International) and Helen Tugendhat (Forest Peoples Programme) moderated the sessions on corporate power and financialization on land, and climate justice and biodiversity protection, respectively.
In the course of the discussion, members recalled that land is a prerequisite for the realization of many human rights, including the right to an adequate standard of living and the rights to food, health, housing, water, a healthy environment, equality, culture and self-determination, among others. While every human life depends on land directly or indirectly, for millions of people, this interdependent relationship with the land is closer still, as these communities depend directly on the land for subsistence, livelihood, social inclusion, and cultural and spiritual survival. However, millions of people lack secure access to, use of or control over adequate land, and others are landless. Corporate land grabbing has arguably intensified during the COVID-19 crisis, and this has in turn been implicated--via corporate capture, including the privatization of public security forces--in the growing repression of environmental rights defenders.
Members mentioned that it is impossible to address the issue of land rights without analyzing the global financial structure and the pressure it exerts on land, as well as forests, fisheries and water. In the words of Sofia Monsalve (FIAN International), “We are not only confronting a company but we are facing a whole global structure: actors, pension funds, capital management funds, tax havens, and these actors are usually clandestine.” Members explored how we must confront a complex capitalist system, which prioritizes profit and growth above rights and sustainability. Faith Alubbe (Kenya Land Alliance) recalled how power imbalance can also be found in the lack of access to information: “So apart from historical land injustices, we have issues of access to information. When you’re talking about access to information, and you’re talking about mega-projects, there’s the delicate balance between disclosure issues and rights to public information… rights to information for communities and to the public in general. Like the issue of profits, like the issue of disbursement of royalties. How much royalties is a company giving to the government and how can communities then be able to claim such [...]”
Ecological destruction also continues to grow, and market-based solutions, instead of people's rights, only make the situation worse. According to Xoán Carlos (Justiça nos Trilhos): “The advance of the green economy proposals, that we know are green capitalism, are a new form of domination of territories, payment for environmental services, and so on. Here in Brazil, this is being carried out in a very violent way, even militarized, with armed militias defending these territories. So what in the north of the world is sold as sustainability and environmental preservation, for us means coercion, violence and imposition.”
Land is fundamental to healthy ecosystems, the biosphere and a habitable earth. Sustainable land use and stewardship is vital to protecting our common ecosystem, including intact forests, wetlands and grasslands. However, often in the name of climate action and biodiversity protection, Indigenous Peoples and local communities are forcefully evicted from their ancestral lands. According to Gam Shimray (Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact) “[...] land rights are quite central to the struggle of Indigenous Peoples for two reasons: for our sustainability and for our right to self determination, mainly speaking. So that is why land rights become quite central in both the biodiversity debate and also the climate change debate... So the fear and the risk is that these targets being set,for example, turning 30% of the earth into ‘Protected Areas’ by 2030, can become a tool or a means for the governments to further violate our rights and this dispossession continues and Indigenous People’s struggle continues.” For Helen Tugendhat (Forest Peoples Programme), “Securing indigenous people’s land rights is an incredibly powerful and scalable solution to climate change. [...] Indigenous Peoples are calling for securing tenure over their lands and resources to become a specific target in the biodiversity negotiations that are currently being undertaken. And Indigenous Peoples and local communities are also calling for investment by governments in their territorial nature and culture based solutions to both climate change and biodiversity loss.”
The discussion also focused on the intersecting forms of discrimination, which affect women in particular, among other groups. Land rights have major implications for the realization of women's rights to water, housing, work, education, health, property and so on. Fighting for the recognition of women's land rights also means understanding their profound relationship to different types of discrimination and violence against women. Elga Angulo Gutierrez (CCP) reminded us of women’s struggles to advance their rights: “[...] as women, we have shown that we have the experience to organize ourselves and fight and defend our rights and dignity. [...] we have won a law for the participation of peasant women in the community boards with at least 30 percent representation. We, as women, have always asked for 50 percent equity. But that was not possible. This achievement of 30 percent is already a reality in the context of indigenous peasant women. Many times, we are made invisible in a patriarchal world with few opportunities for us women for real political participation....”
Logging, mining and industrial agriculture are threatening many communities around the world who try to get organised to oppose powerful interests. João Carlos from Justiça nos Trilhos in Brazil commented on the multiple ways people try to resist such interests: “At a more micro level in the communities, people organize themselves by resisting with their seeds, with their traditional knowledge and their genetic collection of plants. And also at an intermediate level we try to have political advocacy for the approval of laws, for example, that prohibit aerial spraying with agrochemicals, which is something that plagues several communities, if herbicides are sprayed on the plantations of the peasant communities, of the indigenous peoples, if this causes them food insecurity, but also a total financial crisis, total bankruptcy, because they totally lose their harvests. We also have very interesting experiences, such as laws by popular initiative that try to stop other legislative processes that are supported by the great economic powers.”
Much of the discussion mentioned the courageous work of environmental and land rights advocates who face increasing threats from State and non-State actors every day. This is the case of OFRANEH, a social movement who has been facing a lot of reprisals for defending the social, economic, cultural, and territorial rights of the Garífuna people in Honduras. It is thanks to the tireless organizing and activism of local communities and grassroots movements that the central issue of land rights is becoming increasingly visible. Perhaps one of the most notable examples comes from Abahlali baseMjondolo as pointed out by its President S’bu Zikode: “Because the voices of the indigenous people and the weapon of the impoverished people is through their unity in diversity. The masses, when we speak in one voice, when we articulate issues in one voice, then we are likely to be heard by those who hold power or authority.[...] It’s very important for us to organize people. By organizing I mean that we engage in popular education that is educating ourselves, understanding the system, but also analyzing the systems and all the forces that we’re up against.” He emphasized on the importance of being organized as communities, exploring other possibilities including the judiciary, working closely with the media and building strong collaborations and solidarity.
Finally, Adam Barnes (Kairos: The Center for Rights, Religion & Social Justice) reminded us of the urgency to develop an holistic and systemic approach to land rights. “The environment is connected to militarism, is connected to poverty, is connected to racism, is connected to really ultimately a spiritual understanding, a moral understanding of how we’re supposed to live. And so only by fighting for, and seeing the integration of all these demands can we win.”
If you are interested in ESCR-Net’s ongoing work on land rights, please contact Valentine Sébile, Program Coordinator on Women and ESCR, (firstname.lastname@example.org), Joie Chowdhury, Program Coordinator for Networkwide Projects (incl. Environment & ESCR) (email@example.com) or Collins Liko, Program Coordinator for Economic Policy and Human Rights (firstname.lastname@example.org).